Christmas cacti, also known as Schlumbergera, are easily one of the most identifiable houseplants. This native Brazilian plant has draping green branches that produce beautiful flowers that bloom for weeks at a time. While the most common bloom colors are red and white—other unique cultivars are purple, yellow and bright pink.
These plants are part of a group of plants that are traditionally called the “holiday plants.” Do you have a “Christmas” cactus that blooms around Thanksgiving or Easter? Most of the generic plants sold as “Christmas Cacti” are actually Thanksgiving or Easter cacti. To the untrained eye, all the holiday cacti look very similar. Christmas cacti have flat leaves with round “teeth,” while Thanksgiving cacti have pointed “teeth.” There’s another variety called Easter cacti that look almost identical to the Christmas cacti except the Easter cacti flowers open wide, while the blooms of other plants are more tubular like a Lipstick plant flower.
Christmas cacti are affordable, which makes them very giftable—particularly around the holiday season. You’ll find the usual varieties at grocery stores and florists alike, but if you take a side step and check out local nurseries that are known for carrying unique plants, you might get a happy surprise. There are many beautiful varieties like “Christmas Gold” that has a rose-colored center with golden leaves. There is also “Samba Brazil that has a cream center with orange edging.
They’re technically easy to take care of, but there is plenty of opportunity for error. The question of success is answered with an equal combination of water, temperature, and light.
Best Growing Conditions for Christmas Cactus
Light: Christmas cacti need bright, indirect light during the day to produce their beautiful blooms and to stay healthy. Trying placing your plant in a spot that gets eastern exposure. Without proper light, these plants will grow leggy and weak. On the other hand, too much light will burn your plant.
Most people don’t know that in order for flower buds to form, Christmas cacti need 8 hours of light and 16 hours of darkness every day. This is why it blooms around Christmas, as the daylight hours get shorter. It is said that even during the night, having a light on in the room where the cactus is will disrupt the cycle. Better safe than sorry—during the fall months try putting your cactus in a room that doesn’t get used at night.
Be sure to rotate the plant once a week to ensure balanced growth on all sides. To promote growth you can also fertilize bi-annually with a common 20:20:20 option from your local nursery.
Water: When the plant isn’t blooming, water only when the soil is dry to the touch, roughly once every seven days, depending on the light exposure and moisture level in your home. When the plant is flowering, make sure the soil is evenly damp (not soaking wet) at all times. Your plant will also benefit from a good misting every few days. Remember, Schlumbergera are not desert cacti, they are native to the rainforest and need to be treated as such. If your plant is looking wilted, you need to keep better track of your watering habits. Try setting a reminder in your phone.
Soil: Plant your Christmas cactus in well-draining soil and a pot that has a drainage hole in the bottom in order to prevent root rot and pests from making an appearance. Try using a sandy cactus mix or make your own by combining equal parts common potting soil and sand.
Temperature: Christmas cacti will not thrive without the appropriate temperature requirement being met. The ideal temperatures are 70-75F in the daytime and 60 degrees (as a minimum) at night. If your cactus is getting too cold, it will not produce blooms.
Troubleshooting for Christmas Cactus
Christmas cacti are some of the easiest house plants to care for. There are families that pass down plants from generation to generation as a sort of right of passage. Of course, there are folks that have absolutely no idea what to do if the plant gets buggy or that they can actually create an entirely new plant from a cutting.
Do I need to repot my Christmas cactus?
Yes. The best time to repot is after the plant is done blooming. Repot in a container that is 1-1.5” larger than the existing one. This process helps promote growth and a healthy root system. Remember to choose a container with drainage holes. If the roots sit in water for a long period of time, they will rot and kill your plant.
After you repot a cactus is the perfect time to give your plant a trim. An annual trim will encourage the branches of your cacti to grow stronger and longer. Simply cut (with a clean blade, scissors or pruners) along a notch. Keep the cutting to start a new plant—place the cutting in moist potting soil and monitor it as it grows roots.
My plant has bugs. What do I do?
If you notice bugs or a fungus on your plant, the first thing you should do is isolate it and check your other houseplants. Next, take a closer look at what has infested your Christmas cactus. They are most (like other house plants) susceptible to spider mites and fungus gnats.
Fungus gnats are the easiest of the pests to deal with. They look like little flies that buzz around the vicinity of your plant. They’re tiny and they lay their eggs in the top 1” of the soil—they also thrive in damp conditions and spread easily. The first course of action is to let the soil dry out completely to kill off the eggs. If that doesn’t work, try using insecticide (a type of bug-killing soap). If that still doesn’t work, repot your plant in totally new soil. Be sure to wash out the pot with soap if you’re going to reuse it.
Does your plant have some kind of white webbing on the undersides of the leaves and close to the soil? Odds are that Charlotte hasn’t built a web in your plant—you’ve got spider mites. Wipe down the leaves with insecticide or give it a bath to clean off the leaves. Let the plant dry out and try again. Spider mites put up quite the battle, so prepare yourself to keep watch until they’ve been eradicated.